Mayday: I Know Your Troubles Been Long

[29 September 2003]

By Matt Gonzales

So when exactly did Omaha, Nebraska emerge as one of America’s most fertile indie rock breeding grounds?

Probably around the same time that Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst hit puberty. It was around that time that the then-freshly adolescent Oberst helped launch Commander Venus, the band that became the springboard from which Saddle Creek Records, Omaha’s red-hot indie label, would leap. These days, Saddle Creek is as rich in indie cred as anything out of Chicago or New York. With relatively big-name bands like Cursive, the Faint, and the Desperacidos, much of Saddle Creek’s success is due to an unlikely abundance of strong artists living right there in Omaha. In fact, many of the label’s bands are just different incarnations of the same core group of Omahaians. Mayday is one such band. Except, for some reason, they’re on Bar None Records.

Mayday frontman Ted Stephens plays guitar for Cursive, and he also fronts the gloomy Americana folk outfit Lullaby for the Working Class. Whereas Lullaby rarely push the tempo beyond a snail’s pace, Mayday plays everything from plaintive, baroque pop to bluegrass-inspired romps.

This, their second album, lacks the production gloss that adorned their debut, Old Blood. Whether that’s a strength or a weakness is pretty much a subjective call. The bedroom-studio quality doesn’t come close to providing adequate space for the variety of instruments on the record to swell out the way they could, and on a few tracks, the horns, guitars, and drums coalesce into a muddled ball of tinny, indistinguishable noise. But on the quieter songs, the lo-fi treatment infuses the songs with the kind of depth and intimacy that made those Grifters and Sebedoh albums of the nineties so great.

I Know Your Troubles Been Long has many of the impulsive trappings of a side project: thrift-store sound quality, whimsical one-offs between songs, and no allegiance to a particular genre. But repeated listens (appreciation of this album requires them) reveal an increasingly discernible theme of bittersweet nostalgia for the simple life of youth. That theme is most explicitly articulated in the faintly surly, sad-eyed track “The Laundromat”, which finds Stevens’ confronting the dirty affairs of the world with a yearningly helpless eye. Musically, the song is an straight-up dirge, but Stevens’s emotive, weary-as-all-hell voice grows palpably inconsolable as he sings about his personal impotence in the face of war and murder and political manipulation. “There’s a lot of talk goin’ around,” he sings, “bout time reaching a zenith of despair / I watch myself sit idly by like some distant cold third person / And stare so blankly at the news fed by my telescreen”.

Yeah—it’s dreary stuff. But there are moments of shivering beauty on Troubles that do plenty to counterbalance that misery. Of those moments, the most unforgettable comes with “Lost Serenade”, a velvety masterpiece of a ballad that softly emerges from the speakers like a soft, pink mist. Horns drift in and out lazily as the rest of the song floats by with a quiet, heartrending majesty. To not get chills while listening to it alone at night would indicate an absence of any warm blood running through your heart whatsoever.

Similar sublimity can be found in the pastoral opener “Lone Star”, which tracks the trajectory of a night sky luminary as it streaks slowly by. Like “Lost Serenade”, “Lone Star” radiates a fundamentally nocturnal beauty, drifting by ever so slowly, yet always over too soon. Elsewhere throughout Troubles, you’ll find barroom blues (the unprepossessingly titled “Dyzfunctional Cuzin”), Mekons-esque fiddle-driven rock (“Running Away”) and dark, bucolic folk (“Crawfish River”). Throughout, Stephens fills the songs with the kind of detail-rich Midwestern narratives the likes of which would make Sherwood Anderson proud.

Bright Eyes and Cursive may continue to command the awe of trend-following emo kids, but in the meantime, Mayday is inconspicuously making some of the most poignant and emotionally mature indie music to ever come out of Omaha, Nebraska. Anymore, that’s saying a lot.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/mayday-iknow/